Thursday, July 29, 2010

Next year's job market

In my department at Prodigal U, we've been on a hiring binge. Over the last 10-12 years, we've run 1 to 3 searches a year (not all successful). How are these jobs opening?

1. Retirement! We've had three models--profs who really retire and no longer come in, profs forced out (he finally ran out of money after his last grant was not renewed) and profs who are tapering off to retirement but take Emeritus status even with a grant or two to make way for fresh blood (we have 2 or 3 of these). These voluntary Emeritus profs are really considering the interests of the department in going Emeritus, and as a bonus often end up as wonderful mentors (if you care enough to make room for someone, you also care enough that your replacement does well).

2. Old prof dies at the bench (yes, this happened--he had a heart attack in the lab at age 85 and died a week or so later in the hospital).

3. Non-deadwood, non-research active. These are the profs our Chair has been successful at getting the Dean to open lines to "replace". They are still very active in service to the department and University, and take much higher than normal teaching loads on service classes to free up the more active folks to teach the majors/grad students and have lighter loads. These people are really helpful in accommodating sabbaticals and family leaves without crushing the TT profs with work, so I really appreciate them!

4. Expansion. Prodigal U is growing both the number of undergrads and grad students, and as a service department, we got some extra TT lines in the past.

That said, I think our run of hiring is about to end. Given how Wall Street ate most people's retirement money, I am thinking the wave of retirements is likely to end for a while. Let's face it, unless you do research that requires arduous field work, most STEM professorial jobs are not particularly strenuous. It is easy to hang on for a long, long time, especially if your retirement savings have evaporated.

#2 is not only a random occurrence, but it seems really unlikely to happen again soon!

We've been really lucky to have a Dean who is interested in increasing the research profile at Prodigal U, so we've gotten to add some TT faculty to replace not just retirements, but also some of the research inactive faculty in the department. Now that Prodigal U is in budget crunch mode, we're not getting any more of these. And any expansion workload issues will similarly have to be eaten by the department.

I fear for those on the job market this year.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

I write like

I write like
Cory Doctorow

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Hey cool! I've always enjoyed Cory Doctorow's work. 0wnz0red is one of my favorite short stories, Boing Boing is an awesome site (though it is hard for me to keep up!), and I really respect all the work he has done with the Creative Commons license.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Who is an author?

I've been thinking about this issue today because I am having a disagreement with a collaborator about the author list of a paper. This collaborator considers themselves to be "strict" with authorship. I think they are being a total jerk. Our disagreement is over the status of technician on a paper.

At National Lab, like at a university, the PI gets to decide who is an author. My inclination, which is how things worked in my branch at National Lab is to list everyone who contributed to the work as an author. This means that technicians are authors, not just listed in the acknowledgements. This is different from the definition of an inventor for patent purposes (an inventor has to have made an intellectual contribution, which may or may not be true of a technician, depending on the tech and the lab). My collaborator (from a different branch at National Lab) prefers to use the inventor rules for authorship, and relegates everyone else (even some of the people who actually generated the data) to acknowledgments.

Thus the argument--I want my technician listed as an author. Collaborator wants my technician in the acknowledgements only. My technician took data that is critical to the paper, which I think earns authorship. My technician did this under my direction, and followed my protocols without changes, which my collaborator thinks means no intellectual contribution (and for a patent, they would be right). This was a joint project, so we are co-PIs, and I can't just override their objections. I am hoping to end this disagreement quickly (and amicably, but since I am no longer at National Lab, I will fight pretty hard for my tech, especially since collaborator will have limited opportunity to screw me over in the future).

The broader question of who is an author is interesting to me as a new TT prof. I've been in labs where authorship was treated as a prize to be handed out. All morality aside, this leads to awful group dynamics. But making everyone in the group an author is just as bad--why work when you can expand the CV for nothing? I've also been in groups where the bar to authorship is pretty high, and this can lead to reluctance to help out a groupmate with something time consuming. I've been fortunate to work mostly with people who are upfront about authorship rules, and don't renege at the end. I've heard many horror stories, though.

I am in a sub-field where collaboration is the norm, since our experiments require multiple disparate areas of expertise. A typical paper in my research area will have 3 to 10 co-authors. My own philosophy is to give proper credit as much as possible, both for ethical reasons, and because I find that people are far more willing to work with me when they know they will be properly credited. In my group, I keep track of what everyone is working on, and I also encourage my students to let me know when someone has made a substantial contribution that might be invisible to me as the PI so we give proper credit where credit is due. After leaving National Lab, I see how truly important this is, since I need to trust that my former colleagues will do the right thing with the projects I left behind. In my previous collaborations, each PI submitted a list of contributors in order of importance, and that combined list became the author list. I see now that I will need to discuss this issue right up front, since fighting about it at the endpoint is a real drain.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Affiliation question

Quick reader poll--I am getting ready to submit the first of three papers I hope to write from data I took at National Lab. I did a substantial amount of data analysis here at Prodigal U, and of course, I wrote this paper here. If you were me, would you:

1) Put National Lab as your affiliation with a current address at Prodigal U?

2) Put both National Lab and Prodigal U as affiliations?

3) Put Prodigal U as your affiliation?

My colleagues at National Lab say I should do what is best for me careerwise, and don't worry about it too much. I would prefer to do #3, but I think that is misleading. I am leaning towards #2, since I did a bunch of the work at Prodigal U, but I suspect #1 is probably the proper thing to do (since all of the data originated there). Opinions?

Updated to add: I should also add that it is not uncommon for Fed scientists who move on to use only their new affiliations, since many Fed labs have irritating and/or lengthy internal review and release approval requirements. This can be reduced by minimizing the Federal affiliations of the authors (and thus the number of required approvals).

Monday, July 19, 2010

What I Look for in a Graduate Student

Here at Prodigal U, it is the season for recruiting students. In my department, we admit students without an adviser. Students arrive in August, and meet with different professors to choose an adviser (and select appropriate classes for September). This is a relatively common method in my field, although at other universities (like PhD U), students pick advisers after a semester (and TA for support). Some (many?) students arrive already knowing who they want to work with, and some have already arranged it with their future adviser, which is perfectly fine. As a new prof, I ask for meetings with all the students interested in my research area, since I want to see as many people as possible to find good fits for my group. After last year, I have a much better idea of what I am looking for. Last year, I kind of did this a little "seat of the pants", and lucked out. This year, I have been thinking a bit more about recruiting ahead of time. So what am I looking for?

1. Previous research experience. It is really hard to tell if a student who has a high GPA will be good at research. If they already have some experience, I can get a reference from their previous mentor(s). I can also ask them to talk about their research to get more information about how they think about research and science. They also have some experience with the difficulties of research, and have more of an idea about what life in the lab will be like. I need fast starters, since I am just starting out, so this is a big one.

2. Good to great GPA. Grad students need to get a B in their classes to get credit towards a degree here. I want students who know how to study, learn quickly, and are motivated enough to do a good job on something required for their degree (even if they hate classes). I also don't want my students to be so absorbed in passing their classes that they don't get going in the lab. I am totally fine with students who started out poorly, but did well as juniors and seniors. The opposite trend I would find disqualifying.

3. Self-motivation. I am still working out how to select for this. I am a very hands off manager. I don't like to micromanage, and I don't want to have to enforce working hours/face time. I want students who like this kind of workstyle and can work efficiently in it.

4. Works well with others. We do a lot of collaborative work. Students looking for the lone wolf at the bench experience won't get it in my group, and I don't want headaches from territorial drama if I can avoid it. I talk about working with others up front. I also like to ask students about group projects they may have worked on--what they did, what the goal was, if the goal was reached, and where the problems were.

5. Excitement about working on a research project. I don't need my students to be super-peppy or anything, but if they look and sound bored when considering the possibilities in my lab, I will assume they are bored, and my group is not a good fit.

Last year I was lucky, and had 4 people interested in joining my group, of whom I took 2. I have been in "addition by subtraction" situations at work before, so I definitely know I would rather have no one than a poor fit for the group, especially now that the data is flowing nicely. I would like to add 1 or 2 more students this year, and then I will be at the limit of what I can afford without kicking the external support up a notch or 2. Any suggestions for other things to think about when recruiting?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

How I got my National Lab job

A couple of people have mailed me asking how I got a position at my National Lab. If you are looking for a good guide, I'd have to say don't look at me--I got my job through dumb luck. When I was finishing up, I thought I didn't want to go into academia, so I ruled out academic postdocs as a first choice option. I was hopelessly naive as a grad student and didn't even start looking for a job until I had less than a year left. I was also hopeless at networking. After I set my defense date, I posted my resume to and my CV to a few science specific sites. I used the on campus recruitment office to sign up for screening interviews with industry, sent my resume out to lots of different companies, and signed up at scientific meetings as a job seeker.

I had lots of screening interviews both on campus and at meetings. I had on-site interviews at companies in the semiconductor, pharmaceutical, and chemical/materials industries (oh the stories--industrial hiring is no more efficient than academia in my experience). I still had nothing lined up.

I was invited to interview for the postdoc position I eventually took at National Lab after my future postdoc advisor saw my CV on one of the science sites (that is the dumb luck part). Postdoc Advisor was looking for someone who could do the type of measurements I specialized in on a system completely different from my PhD field. National Lab needed my skills, I was sick of my sub-field and wanted to change research directions, so it was a match.

National Lab flew me out for a 1 day interview. This was similar to how I've seen academic postdoc interviews described--I gave a seminar on my PhD research, interviewed with the PIs of my potential project, and met other postdocs/staff working at the lab. As I later found out a a postdoc/staff member, the other postdocs/staff had veto power, but only for a specific reason. The decision was made almost exclusively by the PIs. I had lunch at the lab, but was on my own after 5 pm. It certainly was less tiring than either the TT or industrial on-sites I went to, and I got to see a lot more of the area, since I had free time the afternoon/evening before and evening after my interview.

A week later, I was offered the job. My offer was contingent on me applying for and receiving a National Research Council Research Associateship, which I did. If you are interested in getting one, I highly, highly suggest you find a mentor and work backwards (like what I did). I know that there are lots of people who cold apply to these programs (after all, the pay is awesome, and the science is hot), but every single postdoc at National Lab had one of these (or something else similar), and every single postdoc I have ever met there was recruited first, and applied second. I have never met a postdoc who applied for a research associateship without getting a mentor first, even at other national labs. I think it is a waste of time to apply first. I can't emphasize that enough (because the application is kind of long and annoying).

After I took the job, National Lab paid for my move. I moved and started working. I worked 10-12 hours a day, but only 5 days a week most weeks, and learned how to work much more efficiently so I could keep my weekends free. About 15-25% of the postdocs at National Lab are offered staff positions at the end (mostly to replace retirements--the average age of employees at National Lab is high). They are really into "try before you buy" because firing someone is very, very hard (this seems to be true everywhere--I know lots of industrial scientists who complain about deadwood). More established people who are beyond the postdoc level are brought in as contractors to make sure it will work out before being offered a staff position, at least at National Lab. I've heard this is pretty common at most national labs, but I only know my lab really well.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Helping students become scientists

One of the most difficult tasks I am finding as a new TT professor is in teaching my students how to be scientists. Teaching them the nuts and bolts of how to do experiments--no problem. Showing them how to do a literature search--piece of cake. Helping them prepare talks and posters--more of a challenge, but I am up to it. Getting them to think like scientists, and not just people who can repeat protocols accurately--this is the hard part.

My group has reached the point where our lab is (mostly) set up and everyone is making some progress on their projects. Meetings are much more fun now, with new data to talk about nearly all the time. One of my grad students is doing extremely well--she is thinking up new experiments, figuring out how to test out ideas, bringing in new literature to think about, and generally owning her project. Some of this is of course very raw, but I can see how she is starting to think scientifically and creatively.

My other grad student is making good progress on data acquisition (which is of course important), but still needs a lot more guidance. He only does experiments we have discussed in detail before hand, and never does any kind of follow up (beyond rudimentary data analysis) on his own. He is happy to go ahead and do more, but only after I tell him what to do next. I find myself sending him papers on his project (which is normal), but he never looks to see how they have been cited, unless directed to specifically (which I've done many times). He isn't lazy by any means, just not very independent. I know he has only been in the group a year, but my summer students seem more independent (if less experienced) than he does.

I am thinking about my approach to mentoring--I have a fairly hands off approach that seems to be working well with 4 of my 5 lab peeps. I talk to everyone at least once a day informally, and walk through the lab a few times in case people want to talk. Maybe this student needs some more structure? Some more limited independent projects to try on before tackling his PhD project? I know that not all approaches work for all people, and I don't want this student to fall through the cracks through my own failure, since he is smart, interested in science, and a hard worker. My own experiences are not a good guide, since both my PhD advisor and my postdoc advisor were extremely hands off (more even than I am!).

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Tenure and teaching

The past two days, there has been an interesting discussion on tenure on a couple of the blogs I read. Drugmonkey discussed the decline in the number of TT positions. Female Science Professor discussed student input on tenure decisions and then teaching vs research and tenure, specifically in the context of a research school.

As I commented over on DM's post, I personally would not have moved to Prodigal U from National Lab without the possibility of tenure. I took a large paycut to come to Prodigal U, plus I had already passed the probational period in my Federal job. In my field, the pay goes as industry >> government > academia. In order to attract top scientists, universities need to offer some perks instead of monetary compensation (and research freedom alone won't cut it--it is possible to get that elsewhere with higher pay). Tenure also provides protections for faculty to research controversial topics, to be outspoken about university governance when necessary, and to be active in the local community without reprisals. The same type of job security is available at unionized workplaces and to government employees (at least at the Federal level), so it certainly isn't unique to academia.

FSP discusses another (and more interesting to me) question--should an excellent teacher but mediocre researcher get tenure at a research university? In my opinion probably not. In my comment to FSP's post, I was willing to consider the rest of the file, but we all (at a research school) know that research is the most important piece of research/teaching/tenure. How much should teaching count? Education is an important piece of the university's mission, so I strongly support denying tenure to bad teachers. Once a professor hits adequate, it should be enough to get tenure at a research university.

The situation of the mediocre researcher /excellent teacher at a research school generates a lot more discussion than the reverse, since it seems pretty clear (to me anyway) that an excellent researcher/mediocre teacher is likely to get tenure. There are a few possible backstories for our mediocre researcher /excellent teacher at a research school now going up for tenure:

1. MR/ET tried their best to reach the standards for tenure at their school and missed. It always sucks when someone falls short of the goal. However, this is the risk anyone accepting a TT position takes. It is bad for the person applying for tenure (they will be denied and have to move on) and bad for the department (they lose the investment in time and money in the person denied tenure). My university can't really afford to spend 6-7 figures in startup every 6 years, so we try to be very picky at the time of hire, and the tenure denial rate is low. This is something I investigated before I accepted my position, so I would have some understanding of how the standards are applied. As much as it sucks to be denied tenure, there are many people who go on to good careers both in and out academia after a denial, so it isn't the end of the world for anyone concerned (though it might feel like it).

2. MR/ET cared more about teaching than research, and this was reflected in their relative efforts and results. This one I don't really understand. We don't get to rewrite our job descriptions after accepting the position. There are many types of colleges and universities. If someone is not happy with the mix of responsibilities at one, they should look for a position someplace where there is a better fit. There are plenty of people at research universities who also excel at teaching, but at a research school, research has to come first. This is something MR/ET should have known going in.

3. MR/ET got really bad advice pre-tenure. Not sure how much more I can say about that. It is really important to have more than one mentor. It is really important to see how tenure decisions work at your school, keeping in mind that the ultimate decision is not the departments'.

I think in many ways it is "easier" to quantify research output than teaching excellence. It seems that most teaching is evaluated primarily through student evaluations (this is the case at Prodigal U), with maybe a direct observation or two. This is a terrible way to evaluate teaching, since first, it can be gamed by a professor catering to student whims without actually teaching anything (student evaluations are strongly correlated with grades), and second, students don't always appreciate a good teacher during a course, especially for difficult or required courses. Sometimes, it is only after time has passed (and the student uses knowledge from the course) that they realize the prof was a good teacher after all. Even worse, there are some studies (can't find the links) that show that students are biased in evaluations against women, non-native English speakers, disabled professors, and professors from visible minority groups. Student evaluations should be a part of the process, but clearly not the only factor.

I've heard that non-research universities are counting research productivity more and more. I am not sure if that is true (it is out of my direct experience for one thing), but I suspect that "quantitative" measurement is at least part of the issue.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Everybody's doing it... why not me? Since I started blogging 2 months ago, I've found it to be really fun and helpful to me personally in terms of organizing my thoughts about the topics I post on. When I began, I had all these grand thoughts about giving back to the community and about describing a different path to the TT. Now I am just enjoying having a place I can write about the things I am thinking about.

So anonymous readers--who are you? What do you like the best about the blog? What would you like to see more of? And thanks for reading!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Summer students

I have always had summer students, even in my first year as a postdoc at National Lab. It is really fun to work with them. How can anyone not enjoy watching a students' eyes light up the first time they measure a spectrum or image a sample (no matter how standard the sample is).

Our summer students were undergrads, typically rising juniors or seniors, who often were outstanding at schoolwork (it was competitive to get a slot), but varied in lab ability. I've had wonderful naturals at labwork, and people who needed to stick to theory to be successful. All in all, I published papers with about half of the students I mentored at National Lab, and gave meaty projects to all of them, allowing them to work as independently as their abilities warranted. There were some people at National Lab who used their students as glorified dishwashers, keeping them very far away from any actual experiments. I think this is a total disservice to the students--they are there to see how science is done and to get some research experience, NOT to do scut work all day long. It also turns excited, interested students off of science, so it always pissed me off. Given the decent levels of support for summer students (it was an REU program), and the fact that we didn't have students the rest of the year, I was happy to take on the responsibility.

This is my first summer at Prodigal U, and I have 3 summer students in the lab. I was not sure I would add summer students right now, because proper mentoring of an undergrad can eat up a lot of time. That said, a major advantage of being at Prodigal U vs. National Lab is the wide availability of students interested in working in the lab for the summer--for pay, for credit, or even as volunteers (I have one of each). They are all really hard workers, and can be used for some tasks that are more appropriate for a short term lab member than a PhD student (such as ultrarisky projects). As a new faculty member, I've found that summer students are a huge help.

I have one summer student working out variant protocols for some important experiments. This frees up my PhD students to get further on taking actual data for publications and their projects. This student really wanted to have their own project, so this is a pretty decent compromise.

I have another student starting out a very, very risky project. If it doesn't work, the student got a lot of interesting lab experience and I didn't screw over a more long term student. If it does work, the summer student will be a co-author on the first publication, and I can put a new PhD student on that project without worrying that the project will fail spectacularly and without usable data.

My last summer student is doing some very important but repetitive measurements. This allows my grad student to work on pushing the envelope on her project, while getting the summer student an awesome poster for the student poster session and authorship on the paper that will almost certainly come out of the data (it is looking really promising right now). This student is really excited to have tons and tons of data to analyze (with a lot of help).

I was really leary of taking students this summer, with it being so important that my grad students make a lot of progress on their research. I screened the students pretty carefully (two I knew from my undergrad class), because I didn't want them to be a distraction in the lab. It has turned out to be a great decision, and I am really glad I did it.